The best way to characterize Stephanie Eisner’s controversial editorial cartoon about the killing of Trayvon Martin is to borrow a phrase from Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” a song that has been in my head all week anyway because I’m teaching Do The Right Thing in my film class – which just so happens to famously end with the killing of an unarmed young black man. That phrase, by the way, is Chuck D’s succinct biography of Elvis Presley, and it works equally well for Ms. Eisner’s cartoon: straight-up racist. It is hard not to see the cloying, ironic intonation of Trayvon as a “colored boy” as either outright derogatory or, at our most generous, as the work of a young woman in America who is horrifyingly oblivious to her own go-to vocabulary for thinking about black people.
The cartoon was originally published in the March 27, 2012 edition of The Daily Texan, a student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin, but it was quickly pulled from paper’s website after receiving almost instantaneous negative attention. But it was put back up later in the day, and the editors expressed a willingness to publish the views of individuals even if those views are controversial. But it was pulled off again two days later, when Eisner was also fired from the paper, and the editors finally backed down after backing her two days earlier when the cartoon had first went back up. (This is their public apology, although I personally believe that they should have just left it up and let the cartoonist accept responsibility for her work, which I would be happy to debate in the comments section below.) At some previous point in all of this, Eisner herself had publically defended her cartoon, which took some serious explanation – which is precisely what a good cartoon should be able to circumvent – and then she later also apologized and assured everyone that she was not a racist. This all happened very quickly and has already been extensively documented (for example, please read in order this, this, and then this), and so the fallout itself is not something that really needs retelling.
Nor am I willing to suggest that Ms. Eisner is in fact a racist, which she is probably not. The problem, however, is that in her misguided attempt to critique what she imagined to be a media bias when it came to the depictions of Trayvon Martin and his killer, George Zimmerman, the resulting cartoon betrayed both an misunderstanding of the meaning of “yellow journalism” and an almost complete ignorance of the actual issue itself. (Plus it doesn’t seem to care that a real person, you know, died.) If, like many editorial cartoons, the content is meant to be read ironically, then how else are we to interpret the its picture of “the media” telling the story of a “handsome, sweet, innocent colored boy” as anything other than Eisner’s perceived lack of bias against Trayvon? By creating such a disparity between “white man” and “colored boy,” Eisner is not only mining an archaic, emasculating American idiom, but also reminding her readers that it is still important to discriminate against black people, even when the white person (Zimmerman) seems to kind of clearly deserve a closer look based on his actions. The cartoon can therefore be read not as an appeal for neutrality in the media, but for some kind of messed up balance of bias – one that will put Trayvon in his place because he is not “innocent” of being black. In other words, according to the logic of this cartoon, Zimmerman is not “big, bad” to the same degree that Trayvon is not “handsome, sweet, innocent.”
I’m reminded of a joke that Slavoj Žižek told on a recent episode of the public radio show Smiley and West, a joke which the philosopher used to illustrate we he sees as the true spirit of capitalism:
“Like we in Slovenia, in my country, we have a beautiful disgusting saying that if you ask a Slovenian farmer, God appears to a Slovenian farmer and tells him I will give you a cow but I will give to your neighbor two cows. A Slovenian farmer answers no. Rather kill one of my cows but kill two cows of my neighbor.”
In this case, if Zimmerman is currently under the scrutiny in the media, Ms. Eisner would rather have us “kill two cows” and make sure that Trayvon is not only scrutinized but smeared. Why else would she call him a “colored boy” if not to recall an era in which this demeaning phrase was what white folks treated as neutrality in their regard of African-American youth and not as an actual racial slur? Like Geraldo Rivera’s absurd claim that Trayvon’s hoodie was as responsible for his death as George Zimmerman’s gun, Eisner’s cartoon presents the argument that if the media has vilified Zimmerman as a “big, bad white man” on the basis of ethnicity, then it has not fulfilled its responsibility to duly defame and blame the victim on the basis of his.
Again, I am not trying to suggest that Ms. Eisner is anything other than a college student who still has a lot to learn about the history of her country, its language, and the difference between media bias and yellow journalism. But in all honesty, she also has a hell of a lot to learn about cartooning. Many have already commented on the ovoid features of the young child as resembling that of an inflatable sex doll. (Either that, or in my opinion, what the childhood drawings of notorious porn-face-tracer/comic-book-artist Greg Land might have looked like.) Also, it is unclear if the child is supposed to be shocked by what she (?) is hearing, or if there is some other emotion or reaction involved. Also, the child’s right arm seems to suggest a short-sleeved shirt, but the left arm is either long-sleeved or, honestly, pretty much non-existent; her left hand just kind of shoots out from her hip. And really, the lettering in the speech balloon is just, like, totally all over the place. The arrows pointing to “white” and “colored” make sure that we don’t forget that these are important words, and that this cartoon – by extension – is making an important point about an important issue that we might have missed without a triad of arrows pointing to each racial signifier like it was the neon sign outside of a strip club. Also, we can see that the “o” in “innocent” is replaced by a (black) heart, which is kind of awkwardly followed up by another heart right after the word itself, which is probably just supposed to be decorative – that is, just a heart and not to be read as “innocento.” Which is just bad lettering, although I doubt that the paper will receive any angry letters about that. Finally, it is also worth pointing out that the cartoon misspells Trayvon’s name as “Treyvon” on the book cover, which is either just sheer sloppiness or further signifies a complete disregard for the victim and all that his name has come to stand for over the last few weeks.
His name is the easiest thing that Eisner could have gotten right.
When I teach classes on race in America, I often like to use this clip as a way to talk about the “n-word,” a word that I don’t say but which I spend a whole class discussing. After discussing the origins and history of the word, I will have my class watch the following clip from Richard Pryor’s 1982 concert film, “Live on the Sunset Strip.”
In addition to being a brilliant piece of comedy, I enjoy the clip because of the audience reaction–and I am always intrigued to watch my students watching the film. I also enjoy this piece because Pryor’s concert was one of the first stand-up specials I watched as a young (too young) person, and I have always appreciated my brother and step-brother showing me the movie, which taught me both new swear words and introduced me to the fine art of swearing (this should serve as a warning about the language of the clip below). The film also helped introduce me to important discussions of race, ones that I was not aware of in my sheltered, mostly white, hometown.
I like to follow this clip with a piece of music/spoken word featuring Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Tavis Smiley. While not comedy per se, the clip is an enjoyable and illuminating discussion of the use of the word–one in which humor and laughter play a key role. Enjoy.
The recent comedy podcast boom is something I explore in my work outside the blog. The comedy podcast landscape has become something of a boomtown. The 2008 Writer’s Guild strike drove a number of comedians to explore Internet comedy as an alternative production environment, and given the low barrier to entry, self-publishing became an increasingly popular practice. Today, you can find a comedy podcast to suit any of your tastes. Like serious conversations about the craft and about the lives of comedians? Try Marc Maron’s very popular WTF. What about movies? Given Doug Benson a shot. Are video games your thing? Kumail Nanjiani and The Indoor Kids have you covered. The list goes on and on.
Of course, the shift to Internet comedy has not been a totalizing one. Real, live stand-up still exists! As proof I offer a slew of video recordings. Here are some of the comedians of comedy podcasting.
In a previous post, I attempted to work through an unlikely dialectic of pride and guilt when it comes my own defiance of the enduring stereotype of male comic book readers; somehow, and for whatever reason, it turns out that I read more monthly titles starring female superheroes than male. So pride because there are some really strong books right now, and many of these characters have rich histories and devoted creators despite the constant threat of cancellation due to poor sales. (Just this week, best-selling author Marjorie Liu’s brilliant run on the Marvel series X-23 ended after only 21 issues.) And guilt because these characters tend to be dressed in costumes that I’m sure Rush Limbaugh would have a choice word or two to describe. But we’ve been over this, and you can read the whole thing here. The conclusion is that the best part of superheroines like Power Girl is the way that they actively resist and subvert the male gaze, turning the target audience – men, basically, who are just too easily titillated – into the worst villains with whom they will have to contend.
This, of course, is all very serious stuff, and so I would like to follow up that discussion with the work of two creators whose satirical versions of comics’s most enduring female superhero, Wonder Woman, challenge our principal assumptions about the character: her historically fierce compassion and overall, um, niceness. Wonder Woman is a character who has had innumerable incarnations and iterations – the subject of an excellent recent retrospective on io9 – and as a result remains elusive despite her seeming ubiquity. For all of her alternate origin stories and shifting set of powers, she nevertheless signifies a kind of permanent strength that has withstood an often uncertain role in the shared DC Comics Universe and a rotating roster of creators who have different interpretations and agendas. Also, there was the whole pants or no pants debate.
Wonder Woman is in a lot of ways what is best about superheroes in that she is both strong and symbolic, dissatisfied and driven. The failure of “man’s world” to ever be at peace is her ironic call to arms, although she is not quite immune to a love of battle and the lure of brutality. And yet, somehow she’s still totally nice, of which Steve Rude’s Rockwell-esque portrait is a not uncommon representation.
What one finds in parodies of the character, therefore, is a kind of world-weariness and existential I-simply-refuse-to-keep-caring that is likely the result of having been so widely and wildly interpreted. Kate Beaton’s parodic appropriation of the feminist icon is the result of the character being so routinely misunderstood, as Beaton said in an interview with Comics Alliance:
She’s just a bit more complicated than everybody else. I mean, how many dudes are going to write her and get her right? I just think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, I think it’s a real shame people haven’t figured her out…. I guess the Wonder Woman that I draw is kind of sick of everyone not understanding her.
As a member of the pantheon of historical figures that comprise her brilliant webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, Beaton’s version of Wonder Woman smokes unrepentantly, disdains children, and is as unwilling to indulge the praise of her fans as she is the prattle of her super-peers. In one of Beaton’s strips, even the most seemingly effortless feat of super-heroism – getting a cat out of a tree – becomes a study in super-annoyance.
It has seemed to me that those of us who study humor are an optimistic group on the whole. I am no exception. I have lain awake at night thinking about how standup comedy can pretty much save the world. This belief came from noticing a phenomenon in the fight for gay and lesbian equality; gay and lesbian identified standup comedians doubled as social movement leaders. I’d like to throw a stick in my proverbial bicycle wheel and examine the pitfalls that I’d rather not have observed in my research on lesbian comedian activists, using Margaret Cho and Wanda Sykes as case studies.
It so happens that I wear glasses. You know, to see better. This is much to the chagrin of my mother, who assures me that because I was not born with them, these glasses therefore obscure what she has non-ironically referred to as my “good looks.” It also so happens that I have the thick plastic frames that are currently favored among hipsters, art students, and the similarly fashion-forward. To wit, art openings in my town basically look like somebody brought a case of PBR to a Lenscrafters showroom. If anything, though, my own choice in eyewear is decidedly fashion-backward in an obvious homage to – if not outright emulation of – one of my most enduring idols: Woody Allen. (I learned last night that a friend of mine had a similar experience with black framed glasses when, in 8th grade, he walked into an eyeglass shop with a picture of Isaac Asimov and said “I want to look like this.”)
To my students, these glasses probably just seem like a consequence or corollary of being an English professor – a standard issue accessory – but that might all change when we get back from spring break, when the first thing that we’ll watch in my Introduction to Film class is Annie Hall.
In the film, Woody famously plays Alvy Singer, a semi-autobiographical comedian and writer who performs some of the material originally found on Woody’s album The Nightclub Years: 1964-1968, which – like so much of his work – has taught me to diffuse my own insecurities in public by making myself seem like I’m the single most important person in the world.
The Nightclub Years is something that I have come to more-or-less memorize since I first picked it up as a used double-LP in my college years, and it remains today the primary channel through which most of us know the most famous bits of Woody’s stand-up: the moose, being kidnapped, his science-fiction film about aliens and dry-cleaning, and so on. It’s quite interesting, then, to note the minute differences that emerge between this album and the other various recordings that have surfaced in the forty years since its initial release in 1972. From a more elaborate description of the “Neanderthal” who robbed him in his own apartment lobby to a significant bit of clarification about American ethnic politics for his British audience, the so-subtly altered rhythms of these clips are at once a testament to the practiced precision of Woody’s stand-up and a welcome riff on jokes that have seemed to have the same timing for the last four decades.
More after the break!
The recent court decision on California’s Proposition 8, and the passage of gay marriage bills in Washington and Maryland, have once again brought the issue of gay marriage to the fore in our cultural conversation. On personal, political, legal, and moral grounds, I am a strong supporter of gay marriage. But, in my professional role in the field of humor studies, I must also say that gay marriage wins on humorous grounds–in that those who are in favor of gay marriage (both comedians, pundits, and generally anyone who discusses the subject) are funnier than those who are opposed…in my professional opinion. Below are some comedians discussing the subject. Feel free to post other links in the comments.
Warning: there are dirty words in some of the videos.
There is more!
Among other things, feminism taught me how to play guitar. As a young white whelp who had never had to know any better, I was unexpectedly drawn to the menace and message of the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s. Although I arrived a little late to the party, Sleater-Kinney’s breakout Call the Doctor was one of the first albums that I ever purchased from a store where tattoos were mandatory business attire. From there it was all back catalogues of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Boss Hog, to say nothing of bands whose names began with other letters of the alphabet. I never got all that good at guitar, but I certainly adopted all of the crass creativity and critical awareness that would first inform my politics and then my pedagogy. And which would also somewhat understandably inform the way that I came to regard female characters in mainstream comics, whom I felt were being artistically abused by their unrealistic proportions and seemingly undue salaciousness. (If you need some visual reference here, the new blog Escher Girls is committed to interrogating some of the most extreme skimpiness and impossible elasticity of female figure drawing in modern comics.)
Until a few years ago, this is why I thought I was being a good feminist by not reading Power Girl, the eponymous title of a DC Comics character whose most famous feature is the “boob window” on her costume. Yes, “boob window.” This is pretty much the accepted nomenclature for the oval absence that reveals her swelling cleavage through an otherwise skintight white spandex leotard. (A study of the history of her costume can be read here.) Whereas Superman’s chest was emblazoned with an “S” that proudly signified his Kryptonian family’s crest and Batman’s bat symbol signified, well, a bat, Power Girl’s permanent wardrobe malfunction seemed to literally embody the very worst of comics, which – despite my actual enjoyment of the medium and its newly warmed welcome at the fringes of academic interest – continued to endorse an anatomical ignorance of women’s bodies. This is even taking into account that, yes, we are talking about drawings of fictional women who are super-powered. Still, it seemed excessive. And so, as a devotee of Kathleen Hanna’s dictum of “revolution, girl style,” Power Girl was the last thing that I was supposed to want to look at.
I had arrived at this conclusion without ever having read a single issue of Power Girl in the first place, of course, which itself affirms the sad fact that I hadn’t learned anything from my deafeningly socially conscious music collection after all. To jump to a judgment based solely on bra size is perhaps as bad as just saying that all female superheroes suck – a prototypical fanboy sophistry (which I have literally heard actual human males say on more than one occasion). Because of course they don’t suck. It turns out, in fact, that Power Girl is pretty awesome. Despite a basically byzantine character biography and continuity within the shared DC Comics universe that dates back to her first appearance in 1976, Power Girl remained a member of the Justice Society of America (which is like the Justice League’s B-team – a mix of old-timers and ingénues) and was given her own ongoing title in 2009 with writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and artist Amanda Conner. This series defied all that was static about mainstream comics by actually being fun to read. Whereas Superman could never deviate too far from his role as the world’s biggest boy scout and the brooding grittiness of Batman made him seem like kind of a bummer to be around, Power Girl was as punchy and powerful as she was annoyed with having to keep doing this shit. Saving the world and whatnot. Which, when you think about it, seems not only like a lot of hard work, but also a real impediment to ever making plans. Yes, Power Girl was still saddled with a boob window, but whatever was supposed to be sexy or titillating about the character was met with a sense of humor that juxtaposed brains with brawn (and breasts). As she balanced super heroism with the day-to-day business of running a major tech company as her secret identity Karen Starr – to say nothing of the demands of pet ownership – Power Girl became a character whose costume became less important than simply rooting for her to have an evening where she could throw on some sweatpants and do nothing like the rest of us.
Amanda Conner’s figure work is easily eclipsed by her attention to facial expressions, and as Power Girl vacillated between the joy of actually hitting space monsters and the mind-numbing tedium of constantly being hit on, Conner’s cartooning navigates the minute muscular differences between smirks and scowls. Despite her overt curves, Power Girl became a character whose character was literally written on her face. Traditional supervillains notwithstanding, Power Girl was also constantly besieged by the misguided and awkward advances of the various men and boys with whom she came into contact – ironically mirroring those male readers, I’d argue, who fail the “I’m up here” test of looking women in the eyes.
The series was therefore at its funniest and most subversive (and frankly maybe even a little feminist) when Power Girl was fighting both as a superhero and as a woman; the threat of inopportune and unwanted male attention became as persistent and tough to tackle as anything else.